Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shutting the conversation down

I always shake my head at the irony of a Fox News pundit claiming that President Obama has politicized the death of Michael Brown. This comes from the folks who - along with other rightwing media outlets - have made it their goal to politicize EVERYTHING.

I was reminded of how that happens when I read this article in PowerLine about the politicization of history. But we have plenty of evidence about how the right has politicized everything from science (evolution and climate change) to math (unscewing polls). The success of these attempts can be seen by the fact that where we shop is political, how we acknowledge holidays is political, and cultural icons are political.

Fox News and other right wing media play on all this to set up one side as righteous and the other as out to destroy America as we know it. So if you are a truly patriotic American, you agree with our side and any other position is to be excluded as the enemy. It is this attempt to politicize everything that Julian Sanchez calls epistemic closure.
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.
In order to halt any real conversation, one of the tools often used by right wing media is to cast every issue as an either/or. Media Matters has been doing a pretty good job lately of showing how Fox News edited the remarks of President Obama and AG Eric Holder about the situation in Ferguson by eliminating the balance in their statements. They aired only the side of these remarks that was sure to inflame their audience and eliminated the side conservatives might have agreed with.

There are two reasons why its important to understand this pattern. One is so that we can recognize what the right wing media is doing. But perhaps even more important - so that we can check ourselves and make sure we're not doing the same damn thing.

An astute commenter here pointed out how Michael Eric Dyson did the exact same thing (in reverse) to statements made my President Obama about the situation in Ferguson. Dyson basically wrote a script for what he thinks the President should have said:
And I'm saying to you that if he could inform American society that, look, yes, we must keep them law, yes we must keep the peace, people must calm their passion, but let me explain to you why people might be hurt, why they might be angry and why they might be upset. That is his responsibility to tell that truth regardless of what those political fallouts will be.
Now here's what President Obama actually said:
As Americans, we've got to use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that's been laid bare by this moment -- the potential of a young man and the sorrows of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.

...I’ve said this before -- in too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement. In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear.
To give Dyson the benefit of the doubt, I'm going to suggest that he heard what the President said that made him angry...and not much else. Brittany Cooper did exactly the same thing when she critiqued Rev. Al Sharpton's remarks at the Michael Brown Memorial.

So while our walls of epistemic closure might not be as high or as impenetrable as those on the right, we fool ourselves if we don't admit that they exist. Because anger is such a strong trigger, we go there and shut the conversation down - never getting to the possibilities of where we might agree.

I actually think that Rev. Sharpton spoke eloquently to exactly what is going on - and sounded an awful lot like Bernice Johnson Reagon in the process.
Sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves won't solve our problems. Sitting around having ghetto pity parties rather than organizing and strategizing and putting our differences aside. Yes, we got young and old. Yes, we got things that we don't like about each other, but it's bigger than our egos. It's bigger than everybody. We need everybody because I'm gonna tell you, I don't care how much money you got, I don't care what position you hold. I don't care how much education you got. If we can't protect a child walking down the street in Ferguson, and protect him, and bring justice, all you got don't matter to nobody but you!


  1. You've hit the nail on the head. I wish the dead-enders would listen and HEAR what you have to say on this.

  2. What Bernice Johnson Reagon said. Yes. I take it to heart.


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